Guest Column | September 26, 2017

Build A Case For Telehealth By Showing Patient Demand, Quality Care, And Better Pay

Enhancing The Patient ICU Experience Through Tablets

By Gary Sibley, vice president at Brother

The telehealth technology adoption rate has been gradual among healthcare organizations, increasingly only about 3.5 percent per year from 2014 to 2016. Patients, however, seem to be rapidly embracing telehealth services. One study tracking Medicare patients from 2004 to 2014 shows a 45 percent increase in usage each year, although with some wide variation between states.

For providers interested in adding telehealth services, sharing this type of patient demand data with colleagues can help overcome reluctance. Although adoption continues to expand, demonstrating improved health outcomes and growing reimbursement among commercial and government payers can also persuasively build an internal case.

Once buy-in is secure among key stakeholders, selecting the right rollout strategy and workflow should be based on the organization’s size and specialty. With a successful implementation, provider and patient adoption of telehealth services is likely to be long-term. Following are on three focus areas that can be used to earn internal buy-in and support the case for telehealth.

1. Increasing Patient Demand

An initial telehealth pushback most practices and health systems will likely face is doubt among providers or administrators that patients want the services. The Medicare telehealth study is only one of several strong indicators of potential adoption of telehealth. Another example is a June 2016 survey showing 62 percent of consumers of all ages who agreed that they would be open to virtual-care treatment options as an alternative to in-office doctor’s visits for non-urgent matters. Results were not weighted toward younger consumers either. More than half, 57 percent, of Baby Boomers aged 55 years and older also expressed interest in a web-based alternative for their care.

Another noteworthy finding from that survey is that it reflects an expectation among consumers that healthcare should offer convenient options similar to other industries. For example, more than half of Millennials, ages 18- to 34-years old, and 53 percent of respondents aged 35- to 54-years old reported that a provider with a virtual care option is preferred over a provider does not offer telehealth services.

This was a national survey, but not all markets are the same. To estimate local demand, distributing a survey through the organization’s patient portal, in the reception area of a facility or in a mailing to patients’ homes are options to learn more about their preferences.

2. Better Outcomes

Once stakeholders agree of the potential and strong demand for telehealth, showing evidence of improved patient outcomes is important to earn buy-in, especially among clinical stakeholders.

For example, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported its comprehensive review of published literature on telehealth that: “[a] large volume of research reported that telehealth interventions produce positive outcomes when used for remote patient monitoring, broadly defined, for several chronic conditions and for psychotherapy as part of behavioral health.” The report cited improvements in mortality and quality of life and reductions in hospital admissions due to ongoing communication with providers.

Another significant study among Medicare heart-failure patients who received post-discharge follow up through telehealth showed a 30-day readmission rate reduction from 19.3 percent to 5.2 percent. As a result, the academic medical center that conducted the study is expanding its telehealth program.

3. Reimbursement Improving

The main challenge at earning enterprise-wide buy-in of telehealth, however, is typically concerns over reimbursement. The good news is telehealth payment consistency is improving among commercial health plans and government payers.

As of June, 33 states and the District of Columbia have telehealth reimbursement parity laws for commercial insurers and seven states have similar laws in the works. Organizations need to be aware, though, that these state laws can vary widely in restrictions and covered services.

At a federal level, providers affiliated with accountable care organizations have greater Medicare reimbursement flexibility concerning telehealth. Another encouraging development for telehealth is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services waived its reimbursement requirement that providers must be serving patients in rural areas and those patients must receive telehealth services in a medical or nursing facility.

Whether it is state or federal payers, organizations need to review relevant regulations before offering telehealth services. For commercial contracts, organizations should determine telehealth reimbursement rules and may need to negotiate new terms to ensure adequate payment.

Tips For Successful Telehealth Rollout And Workflow

Developing an effective strategy for rolling out telehealth services is highly dependent on the organization size and specialty. Regardless, the chosen web-conferencing technology should be designed to support healthcare delivery and align with HIPAA Security Rule requirements for electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI).

The platform should also be easy to use and access on both computers and mobile devices to ensure providers remain productive and efficient and they are able to focus on the patient. Likewise, high-definition video and audio will more closely simulate an in-person encounter and earn greater trust and acceptance among patients.

Finding the most effective telehealth workflow will also depend on the organization’s unique characteristics. While dedicating a provider to only telehealth visits may be worthwhile for large or rural organizations, seeing patients online between in-person visits may be more efficient for others.

Once implemented, the organization can be assured that patients will be highly receptive to and grateful for the convenience and access available to them thanks to telehealth.

About The Author

Gary Sibley Is vice president at Brother. With more than 20 years of experience in leading-edge collaboration technologies, Sibley supports OmniJoin, the company’s web conferencing service with a growing healthcare segment.